Early Evolution of Encounter Text

A number of times in recent episodes of the Wandering DMs D&D Sunday talk show we've wound up debating how much detail is best for published adventure text. So I wanted to share some of the possibilities running around my head from classic D&D products. In particular, for what follows I'll present a snippet of an adventure authored by Gary Gygax, graduated in 2-year intervals throughout his tenure as the "boss" of D&D (1974-1985). I've also intentionally tried to focus on his higher-level adventures, which composed most of his published output, so as to compare like-to-like in as many cases as possible (i.e., I intentionally skipped Keep on the Borderlands for this reason). Here we go:

1974 – Castle Greyhawk Notes

Okay, so this one wasn't exactly published, and it also isn't high-level. But we managed to get a look at Gary's notes for running Castle Greyhawk's first level when Matt Bogen (Eridanis) caught a photo at a special Gen Con 2007 event. As you can see, it's only a single curt bullet-line per encounter area, noting monster type, number range, and treasure (and absolutely nothing else). In fact, it's more stark than that, because multiple rooms on the map are denoted with any one given key number (often a half-dozen or so); and about three-quarters of the rooms have no key whatsoever, being simply empty (in line with the design advice from OD&D Vol-3).

Most everyone involved agrees the map layout is Gygax's original design for Greyhawk from the early 70's (could be 1972-1974 or so), developed in conjunction with the D&D rules; but there is some debate on whether the encounter text is original or not (maybe changed up for convention play?). Personally, I'm pretty confident that the text seen here is either original or in the same basic format -- if Gygax was so famous for improvising things mid-game, what would be the point to rewriting these minimalist text notes? Big thanks to Alan Grohe (grodog) & Zach Howard (Zenopus) for managing to decode that fuzzy photo taken from over Gary's shoulder.

1976 – Lost Caverns of Tsojconth Tournament

This is a snippet from the document Gygax wrote for DMs running the D&D tournament at Winter Con V, which occurred at Oakland University in 1976. Rather than bullet-point atoms, here we at least get full English sentences describing each area (usually 2-3 per encounter). But the emphasis is largely the same: the very first piece of text per area gives the monsters and hit points; this is followed by a small bit of descriptive text, and ends by denoting a treasure value (possibly none). Instead of a numeric range for monster number appearing (as in his Greyhawk notes), the monster numbers are now fixed, and their hit points are listed in advance. Arguably this might be motivated by the tournament situation where the strength of encounters should be as fixed as possible across different tables. We should also note that the back of the document has a table (one page per dungeon level) with summary statistics for all the monsters present, including number, hit points, move, attacks, and specials -- and even a "hit bonus" and a target number to hit each PC in the adventure, which is equivalent to ascending-AC in the d20 system (!).

 1978 – Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

By the time of the GDQ (Giants/Drow) series, Gygax now starts providing a name for each keyed area (instead of just identifying it by monster type). The narrative descriptions are somewhat more textured, and the paragraphs tend to lead with those sense-descriptions -- with identification of any monster, and their hit points, possibly occurring deeper in the block. (As a result, it's possibly easy for the DM to overlook the monster present in room 2. above, say). Again it tends to conclude with a discussion of treasure, with somewhat more detail given to that description as well. 

1980 – Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

AD&D module S3, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, like most of Gygax's famous adventures, was birthed at a tournament event -- in this case at the Origins II game fair in Baltimore in 1976. Four years later, we got the elaborate published product, in full-color, and with a copious illustration booklet. Note that it exhibits similar DNA to the 1976 Tsojconth tournament text: areas are often identified only by the monster, the text is very mechanically terse, it concludes with a treasure, etc. (e.g., areas 5. and 6. above). But in some other cases we have a blossoming of more deeply detailed areas, even without any monsters or traps at all; for example area 7. above, the "Ship Commander's Quarters" -- which actually continues to sub-areas a., b., c., and d. (none of which have any monsters or unnatural contents), almost 500 words total for the one area. Also we see here an expansion of the monster statistics within the paragraph text -- not just hit points alone, but now also armor class, movement, hit dice, attacks, and damage. In some case these notational statistics take up a larger proportion of a paragraph, possibly making for a choppier read.

1982 – Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth Publication

The 1982 publication version of Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth gives us a golden opportunity to compare to the earlier tournament module (above). The maps in question closely match; from a quick survey they appear identical (despite lots of tricky, crooked, freehand-caverns). Areas 2., 3., and 4. in the 1982 publication (above) are the same caves as B., A., and D., respectively, in the earlier 1976 adventure (further up). We can see then that many of the contents were changed, moved, added, etc. Stirges in 2/B are basically the same. A flesh golem in D was changed to a clay golem in 3 (formerly A), the back-map removed. Blink dogs are removed entirely and the new mobat monster inserted. And so forth.

Aside from those content changes, the text is again more elaborate than in the tournament document. Note that the brand-new encounter with the mobats gets significantly more verbiage than some older encounters, say. We again have a name for each area, and a tendency to start the description with a monster, and end with a treasure. Monsters have expanded parenthetical stat blocks, including possibly extended description of special abilities. And hey, there's boxed text for the first time! 

Another aspect we should point out is that compared to the earlier version, S3 gets an added extensive wilderness adventure section through the mountains before the Lost Caverns can be explored. This runs 9 pages, including 3 pages devoted to a gnome vale (complete with large underground lair maze/complex) intended for use by the PCs as a secure base for rest & rehabilitation between forays. Two of the really interesting differences between this section and the dungeon text is that: (1) while the dungeon areas use boxed text, the wilderness does not, and (2) while the dungeon has parenthetical monster stats mid-paragraph, the newer wilderness areas remove them to separate stat-blocks outside the paragraphs. Personally, I find it really interesting to be able to pinpoint in this one document the moment when monster stat blocks grew too big to comfortably fit within the paragraph text, and obviously had to be moved to a separate dedicated place on each page.

1984 (c.) – Dungeonland & Temple of Elemental Evil


For my last entry, I'm hindered by the fact that there's no published adventure with Gygax as the principal author in the year of 1984. (An earlier version of this article presented a snippet from 1984's Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, which credits Gygax & Kuntz, but we know that was originally a Kuntz creation, and it differs in some key ways from other modules of the same era.)

But if we look at adventures by EGG in 1983 and 1985, the overall style is pretty similar, so we can safely interpolate how one of his adventures in 1984 should have looked like. Above I've taken one encounter area from 1983's Dungeonland, and one from 1985's Temple of Elemental Evil, and compared them side-by-side. The Dungeonland adventure (a pastiche on Alice in Wonderland) is credited to Gary Gyax, and has no other credits listed that I can find, so it seems fair to assign responsibility wholly to him (and the same for the follow-up, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror). Temple of Elemental Evil, of course, is credited to Gary Gyagx and Frank Mentzer (with editing platoon of Carmlen, Heard, Johnson, Russell, and Winter); and we know the adventure was primarily loose notes from Gygax's campaign, turned over to Mentzer, who made significant changes when drafting the published text. 

Anyway, the format of these 1983-1985 adventures is very similar. Encounter areas tend to be several paragraphs each. Both adventures make use of boxed text, as introduced in the 1982 Tsojcanth dungeon areas. (Interestingly, Temple has a strong tendency to start with some non-boxed info to the DM, and then give a boxed description fairly deep in the encounter text; as shown above, this isn't universal.) Similarly, monster stat blocks are now uniformly removed from the paragraph text, and given as separate lines after the paragraph they're mentioned in, as was done in the Tsojcanth wilderness areas. Dungeonland has a 2-column format, while the Temple uses 3-columns per page. While both keep the tradition of noting treasure near the end of the text, Dungeonland had a formal annotation of a boldfaced "Treasure" label, whereas the later Temple abandoned that technique. (This is a trend I've seen a few times over the years: the more formal one tries to make the structure, the more brittle it is, and the less likely to stand the test of time.)

Also worthy of consideration: 1985's Isle of the Ape, which had Gary's name alone on the cover (and he'd mentioned it as a level in his Greyhawk campaign back in the 1979 DMG), with a credit inside for "Development: Bruce A. Heard". The interesting wrinkle here is that monster stats are entirely eliminated from the encounter text pages, and instead removed to a summary table on an extended flap of the module cover. 

And another common point among all the adventures of this time frame: The author/designer/publisher feels free (or maybe compelled?) to include some areas with very long descriptive text indeed. Each of the modules considered here have a number of areas with descriptions spanning multiple whole pages of text. Dungeonland sees this with The Long Hall (p. 4-5), Lawn and House (p. 14 and 19-21), Park (p. 21-23), and The Palace (p. 25-27). Isle of the Ape has an introductory boxed-speech by Tenser that is runs 2 full pages of text to be read verbatim (some 1,600 words!); with multi-page encounters such as Kawibusas' Ambush (p. 10-13), Plateau Area (p. 31-33), The Spheres of Thought (p. 38-39), and The Glowing Pearl Chamber (p. 43-45). The Gygax/Mentzer Temple of Elemental Evil is similar, with an introductory boxed text section that runs more than a full page (about 1,300 words), and area descriptions that commonly run many paragraphs or a whole page; e.g.: room 404 is ironically a 20'×30' room with 1,200 words of content text, room 417 has the same dimensions and 1,400 words, and so forth.

Open Questions

If you could set a dial for preferred extent of descriptive text in an adventure you'd pick up and run now, at what year would you set it: 1974, 1976, 1980, 1982, or 1984?

Where do you like your monster stats -- mid-text, after the paragraph, or removed to a separate table or section at the end of the module?

And did you like the boxed text innovation, or not?


  1. 1976 is my preference and how I write.

    I prefer at the end BUT, what I shoot for is consistency. Do it the same way throughout the adventure, that way I spend as little of time as possible at the table digging.

  2. Hi there! Thanks for the interesting post. You bring out a lot of interesting details on this evolution.

    I think it bears mentioning that of these dungeons on your list, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief was the first "Gygax module" sold commercially. (Somebody correct me if I got that wrong.) I'd guess that would make a difference to the efforts at presentation.

    Although your use of Gygax' authorship as a "control" on the experiment is understandable, it's worth mentioning that there were already other styles of annotating dungeons for commercial distribution. Compare Gygax's modules with Palace of the Vampire Queen (1976) with Mike Carr's B1 (1978), or Jaquay's Caverns of Thracia (1979), and we see some wide variation in presentation before 1980.

    1. All of these are great points. To my knowledge you're right that G1 was the first Gygax commercial publication and that certainly influenced things.

      The 1976 Tsojconth tourney module has a note, "The dungeon set from MDG MichiCon VI Gamefest will be out shortly following the convention. For more information or purchase of this or future dungeon sets, contact Howard Dawson..."

      So at least the idea of selling those modules was in the air at that time.

  3. Boxed Text: Hate it. It often causes a mismatch between the IRL DM and the Author DM. And because it is linear, it often assumes PCs are approaching the room from a specific direction instead of alternative doors, magic, or other weird situation. Box text is useful in a tournament situation where all players need to hear the exact same text.

    But that makes it a symptom of the problem. Early modules evolved, I think, from these tournament games instead of the megadungeons that Gygax, Arneson, and Svenson ran. Which was the wrong way to go about it.

    I think the best text innovations have been those championed by the OSR with Old-School Essentials as an example.

    Room descriptions have important object in bold with parenthesis containing details when studied up close. So:

    01 TATTERED BEDROOM: BED (ripped silk sheets, stench of decay, body underneath). MIRROR (cracked). ARMOIRE (destroyed, 1 draw remains, secret compartment).

    *Secret compartment: Contains 1 healing potion

    *Body: Actually a zombie. Will rise in 1 turn

    *Zombie AC HD ATK DMG MV ML Special

    1. That's a pretty good analysis. The funny thing is I find I lead my descriptions with sensory overview information, which in theory could be boxed off... but that seems to imply the need to read it verbatim, which is a bad idea for a volatile situation.

      Personally I guess I do boldface my monsters in-text and then remove stat block to right after the paragraph. Other than that I don't want too much formatting restrictions to get in my way while I'm writing.

  4. An interesting article. This kind of thing really interests me. Could you also have looked at EX1 and EX2 for a style comparison?

    1. Thanks! And geez, that's a good point... I seem to have not thought about those when I was looking at a master list of Gygax modules by date. Although they came out in 1983, which was an off-year for my analysis. That said: They do look quite a lot like the Temple format, with long (some multi-page) descriptions, boxed text, and monster stat blocks below the paragraph.

    2. I thought this was a sufficiently good point to totally rewrite the last section to focus more on EX1 and T1-4 (even though they're 1983 and 1985), as better examples of clear provenance by Gygax, and really more emblematic of most TSR adventures at that time. Thanks a bunch for thinking of that!

  5. I'm in contact with Bruce Heard on Facebook. I wonder if he'd remember how much writing and how much editing of Gygax's text he did on those later modules.

    As for your questions, I tend to go somewhere between 1976 and 1978. I start with a brief description of the area. Then any monster stats, traps, or specials. Then any potential treasure. Each gets its own paragraph (although often just a line or two each).

    When I was young I wrote myself boxed text on a few adventures, but quickly grew out of it, and can't stand it now.

    1. I'd love to hear any of Bruce's recollections on producing those!

  6. Monsters at top, treasure at bottom. Basically order of use. Arguably sleeping giantess, hidden under covers, is not order of use (3/4 of the time anyways), but for consistency I'd still put her at the top.

  7. I think Gary's B2: The Keep on the Borderlands (1980) got the amount of description right.

    I don't need monster stats in a module, since I always look at the monster's entry in the rulebook.

    Boxed text? I hate it, no exceptions.

  8. For stuff I'm just planning to use in my home games pretty much the 1974 notes. For stuff that's intended for publication (whether it actually happens or not) the format I've settled on is pretty much the S4 outdoor encounters - descriptions a bit more detailed and elaborate than the earliest stuff, but no boxed text and summarized statblocks at the end of the encounter description rather than inline.

    1. That's a nice point, honestly... that may be about the best description to where I've settled.

  9. 1980 is how I write my adventure notes, while 1978/76 is how I wish I wrote my notes (with more bolding for important details). I prefer monster stats to be mid-text and short. I dislike boxed text, but have found myself writing it and never actually using it in the past.

    1. Fascinating, thanks for that! I've got to admit, a few years back I started removing monster stats to below paragraph (I think inspired by Rappan Athuk, actually), and I found it speeded up my writing time quite a bit.